I went down to the New Beverly to check out The Sand Pebbles, a 1966 film starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborogh, Candace Bergen, Richard Crenna, Mako, and featuring my pal James Hong.
The print was striped with 4 track magnetic sound, and it did sound great, a lot of dynamics, and an extended frequency range. The score sounded incredible, (Jerry Goldsmith) and there was a lot of music in this film. The print was pretty faded so it was kind of like watching a Black and White film with pink overtones, every once in a while a bit of color would appear but after a minute back to pinkville.
The Great James Hong as Shu
I had never seen the film before and this 3 hour and 15 minute version (complete with intermission) is longer than the regular release. A Road Show Print was usually longer or had mag tracks or maybe was struck from the original negative. These were screened at big venues, NYC, Chicago, LA. before the film went into wide release. Now I am not sure what scenes were included in this version that were left out of the regular release but I have a feeling that there was more engine room footage in this long version. Why? Because there is a 20 minute sequence of Steve McQueen lovingly working on the steam powered ship’s engine and it is great!
McQueen was a motor nut, racing cars, motorcycles and amassing a huge collection of both. I think he really identified with Jake Holman, the character he’s portraying. One of the best scenes in the movie is a tense sequence of repairing the massive engine, a tour de force of suspense. McQueen’s company, Solar Productions co-produced the film and I think he had a lot of say as to what went into the final product. It feels like a personal film for McQueen. Maybe the fascination with machines, with the mechanics of things says something about McQueen’s world view.
There is also a great battle scene as the ship (The San Pablo) runs a barricade in the Yangtze River. Great stuff.
I relly liked a scene in a chapel where Richard Attenborogh marries his Chinese girlfriend Maily while McQueen and Candace Bergen look on. Something about that scene, the way it’s staged, it just feels like a movie scene from another era, but in a good classical way.
Robert Wise does a great job directing this film. He directed classics in so many genres, a great filmmaker. William Reynolds, a super editor cut it. I met him once at Genghis Cohen, an L.A. Chinese restaurant, having lunch with his crew. A good friend of mine, another great editor Bud Smith, worked with McQueen on the television show Wanted:Dead or Alive. He and McQueen bonded, both were avid motorcyclists and car racers. They spent time riding in the SoCal desert. And if you ever find yourself at Casa Bianca, waiting for a tomato pie, look on the wall. There amidst the many celebrity 8X10’s is a picture of Steve McQueen from Wanted:Dead or Alive. I guess he was a fan of their pizza too.
I’ve been thinking about this film lately so I watched a few clips on Youtube, I have a Japanese import dvd somewhere but I haven’t run across it in a while. The shots in the party scene are so amazing, so fluid, so space delicious , I don’t think their baroque splendor was reached until Fellini’s 8 1/2 and this was Welles 2nd film! The interesting sequence of Joseph Cotten trying on different types of clothing, shoes, hats illustrating the evolution of sartorial styles is unique in Cinema. The wonderful opening shot of the house and the horse drawn carriage that comes by and the orchestrated movement in the frame is unequalled in timing, simplicity, complexity. It’s not boring one shot that doesn’t move with a kind of Victorian vignetting, incredible. I read some where that Welles, enfant terrible of radio, recorded the dialog for the big dance scene as a radio play, worked with the actors till the timing was perfect, then played back the dialog on the set as they filmed and the actors had to say their lines in sync with the recording! It seems impossible but the scenes are obviously(to me) dubbed. And these are some intricately choreographed moving shots! With overlapping dialog no less. It really is unbelievable.
The way characters move from light into darkness, become silhouettes, then are illuminated again, so beautiful, tenebrae is the term for this dramatic lighting effect. The wonderful performances, all great.
The movie does have a kind of a downer tone that was out of sync with it’s time, WWII and all, probably why it tested poorly, but it was ahead of it’s time, it plays better now. Watch Joseph Cotten’s speech about the impact of the automobile on civilization, brilliant .
The idiotic regime that replaced Schaffer at RKO hated Welles, so did a lot of people in Hollywood, they resented this upstart and they didn’t understand him so they tried to destroy him. And they did a pretty good job, even though it was at a high price to themselves! If they had not reclaimed the silver from the original negative of Amersons by melting it down, they would have been able to release the Directors cut in theaters all over the world, on VHS, dvd, Blu Ray. They would have made a fortune from it. As a fortune was made from Citizen Kane over the years. I can think of no other lost film I would rather see than Welles cut of Ambersons. It’s like a dream, the idea of going into a theater and seeing the whole thing. Welles went to Rio to shoot “IT’s All True” before Ambersons was completed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had persuaded his friend to take on this project to foster good feelings between South America and the USA, keep them from joining the Fascists. I read that Robert Wise sent a work picture and track down to Rio for Welles to watch and comment on. No one seems to know what happened to that print. Could it still be down there in rusty cans, in storage somewhere, in an old warehouse. The heat and humidity might have turned the nitrate film stock into highly explosive goo but maybe there’s a chance it was put in a cellar somewhere, a vault, and it exists. Lying there in the darkness ,the plastic realization of a young man’s genius, like frozen thoughts, Donovan’s Brain in it’s fish tank, waiting.
Welles on the Ambersons set, Robert Wise the editor 2nd from left. Welles blamed him for the hatchet job
Ambersons was one of the favorite films of Jean Pierre Melville. He speaks of it in a book of interviews I once read. He comments on a scene between Joseph Cotten and Anne Baxter (playing his daughter). How Mellville remembers seeing the “cottony trees” they were walking through even though the scene is in a close 2shot and you don’t get a good view of the surroundings, Welles created this unseen world in the viewers minds by the actors voices, a direct link to Radio.
Holt never really wanted to be an actor but he was born into it, Hollywood Royalty, a member of the Beverly Hills polo club. This was a big year for Tim, he appeared in Ambersons and The Treasure Of the Sierra Madre, not bad!
Welles did not appear in Ambersons but he did the voice over, and narrated the credits at the end, one of the first times a film appeared with no letters on the screen (other than the RKO logo and the main title). Once again Radio rears it’s antennaed head.
Future filmmakers beware! Never walk away from your film before it’s finished! Even if FDR and Rockefeller are beseeching you to do so! This action on Welles part not only “ruined his best film” but put a huge dent in his fledgling yet stratospheric career. A pattern that repeated itself throughout his films, he left Touch Of Evil to go down to Mexico to set up a new project, but that film fared much better than Ambersons, they even recut it following a 100 plus page memo Welles left behind. Oh well if only somebody stumbling out of a World Cup match wanders by mistake into an old film vault and kicks over a box and cans marked RKO spill out otherwise we’re left with the image from the end of Citizen Kane but it’s not Rosebud that’s consigned to the flames, it’s the missing negative of The Magnificent Ambersons.
I was saddened to learn of the death of William Cartwright. I didn’t know him but every citizen of Los Angeles and really every human being owes him a debt of gratitude. Mr. Cartwright was a filmmaker and editor, cutting some impressive documentaries while working for early TV maven, David Wolper. His work on 1964 ’s The Making Of the President won an Emmy. He also edited some feature films, produced and directed documentaries and had a long creative career. Bill was lucky enough to study at USC under the great Slavko Vorkapith, montage maker from the Golden Age of Hollywood and major Film Theoretician, a huge influence on American Avant Garde Films of the 50’s and 60’s.
Vorkapich at work
But the (to me) most incredible thing Mr. Cartwright accomplished began back in 1958. He was going to visit a relative and he got lost driving around South Central Los Angeles, he turned a corner and lo and behold, a shimmering surreal vision appeared in the midst of a borderline urban tract, the Watts Towers!
He was amazed and wanted to know more, soon he was buying the Towers from their owner, not the man that built them, Simon Rodia, but a neighbor that Rodia gave them to.
Once purchased, he learned they were to be torn down so he conducted a stress test to prove to the City they could withstand an eartquake. They are still here thanks to this man’s efforts! ( and a lot of others he recruited to help) What a wonderful gift to the future citizens! If you haven’t been there, GO! They are a marvel, a testament tpo the Creative Spirit of One Man and the determination to preserve them of another.
Finally thanks to Youtube I had a chance to see Youth Runs Wild, the Val Lewton produced RKO film that’s eluded me for a long time. Was it worth the wait? Well, yes and no. An interesting premiss, youngsters running wild due to lack of parental supervision, owing to the fact that most parents were either overseas or working in WWII related industries.
A LOOK Magazine story about a teenaged girl that started a Youth Club was the impetus for this project but once Lewton got involved he transformed it from a puff piece about wholesome Timmy and Jennie playing skittles in the church basement to a searing indictment of child neglect, abuse, and exploitation. This didn’t sit well with the brass at RKO, the State Department or even LOOK magazine so drastic re-editing was called for and Lewton disgusted at the end result asked that his name be taken off the project. What remains holds clues to what might have been, Lawrence Tierney’s performance as a corrupter of youth, garage owner. Fencing stolen tires, in big demand due to War rationing. Tierney claimed in an interview that his character sold drugs to kids as well in the original version.
Dickie Moore in Out Of The Past
Dickie Moore, one time Little Rascal and the deaf mute sidekick to Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past appears and is often complaining about the treatment he gets from his father, in Lewton’s cut little Dickie offs his abusing psycho padre with a rifle.
Dickie with chicks in Youth Runs Wild
The ending really comes from out of nowhere, hacked on by a studio hatchet man, a bizarre montage about the teenaged girl that started her Youth Club, trying to shuck and grin the film back to pure propaganda niceness. A few other noteworthy items, John Fante is credited as screenwriter, the author of the wonderous Ask The Dust, one of Bukowski’s (and mine) favorite L.A. novels. Fante knew his way around abusive, alcoholic parents, check out some of his other novels. YRW was directed by Mark Robson, Lewton’s pet director, elevated from the editing room to the director’s chair by Lewton on The Seventh Victim after cutting several films for Lewton including Cat P_eople, The Leopard Man, and the incomparable I walked With A Zombie. Robson later repaid Lewton for his help by cutting him out of an independent production company deal and having his agent deliver the bad news. Vanessa Brown plays an overworked, abused teenager lured into prostitution by an older wiser babe and in one scene she sports a flowery coif that I am pretty sure inspired Beth Short, the Black Dahlia to imitate.
Vanessa Brown with RKO stalwart Kent Smith
Life Imitates Art
Short probably related to the character Brown played. Brunette, sexy beyond her young years, struggling to make ends meet, hustling drinks in Hollywood Wartime nightclubs. Fascinating stuff. But anyway you too can watch via Youtube and judge for yourself. Too bad no copy of Lewton’s original cut remains. The trims and outs were probably burned to reclaim the 20 cents worth of silver in the emulsion, just like the missing parts of Orson Wells Magnificent Ambersons.
WatchYouth Runs Wild for yourself on Youtube!
No, not the movie about ballet dancers, this one is from 1952 and is all about crime, corruption and the law. It’s funny how things intersect on the Great Plains of Life, I have been thinking a lot about George Tomasini, the film editor. This guy was one of the all time greats, look at his IMDB page almost every film he did is a classic!
The Great Cutter! George Tomasini!
He worked in many genres and they all came out great, his fantasy work with George Pal, The Time Machine, The Seven Faces Of Dr. Lao, Houdini. All great. I was watching Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, end credits roll, edited by George Tomasini. Plus he edited a major share of Hitchcock’s Hollywood output. Everything from Rear Window to The Birds, including Psycho with it’s famous shower scene. Anyway I will one day soon write a piece just about George. So when I checked out Mr. Tomasini’s IMDB page I saw a film listed I had not seen, The Turning Point. I thought, ” I’ll have to check that out one of these days.” Then I was cruising around the internet and ran into a blog about Bunker Hill, On Bunker Hill, this site features great images of the old neighborhood that stood just north of downtown before it was demolished. A real dreamscape used as backgrounds by many film noir masters. I then found a link to Angel’s Flight Goes To The Movies, and there was A Turning Point! Then to top it off it’s on Netflix streaming! So I checked it out. Directed by super talented William Dieterle, the man behind such classics as The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Portrait of Jennie, this is a really well written story, excellently paced by Tomasini, it has some incredible scenes, including one of the best assassinations ever filmed. A crooked cop trying to do right is set up for a hit, and the shooter is then shot by two truck driving killers(one of whom is the Professor from Gilligan’s Island). There’s a lot of great location photography all over Bunker Hill.
And a climactic scene at what I think is the old Olympic auditorium, a boxing match featuring an appearance by the second most decorated veteran of WWII, Neville Brand.
This was two years after D.O.A. where Brand tortured Edmond O’Brien, Edmond is sort of the star of The Turning Point but really it’s William Holden. Check this gem out, great writing, directing and editing and all on Netflix streaming!
Maestro Of Psychic Cinema! William Dieterle
This is a film I’ve heard about for many years and now finally it can be seen, thanks to Netflix streaming. Written by the great Terrence Malick a couple years before he directed his masterpiece Badlands, Deadhead Miles is a paean to the open road, a picaresque tale of two and eventually one traveler. That one traveler is played by Alan Arkin, a terrific performance and one of the weirdest Southern accents ever. Arkin is the driver of the big rig of destiny. Beautiful cinematography, 35mm, rich color,awe inspiring landscapes, 1971 locations make this movie a kind of low ball visual feast. And a cool country music score, by Tom T. Hall. A great supporting cast, including some real gems.
But the reason I knew about this movie is that a friend of mine worked on it. Bud Smith, great editor of such films as The Exorcist, Putney Swope, Cat People, Zoot Suit, Sorcerer, Personal Best and many other films, told me about his time on Deadhead Miles. Bud was hired to edit the film, he stayed in Los Angeles while the crew shot on location and sent the film back. Bud cut the film as it came in. At the end of the shoot the director took a few weeks off to recuperate from the rigors of a road movie. When he came into the editing room Bud was ready with his first cut of the movie. They screened it. The director said,” Can you take that all apart and put it back in dailies?” Bud said, ” You mean there’s nothing in there that you like?” ” Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.” “Well, I guess you got the wrong guy to work on your film.” And with that Bud left. Tony Bill , the producer, wisely duped Bud’s cut before having it disassembled and after a little while Mr. Bill fired the director. The new editor used Bud’s original cut for a lot of the film which then languished in obscurity until now. So check it out, a unique film.
Another rare discovery on Netflix streaming, the 1974 Grand Prize Winner of the Cannes Film Festival, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Arabian Nights or Il fiore delle mille e una notte. I saw this film on it’s initial release back in 1975 in NYC and this is the first time I’ve watched it since then, I started watching it around midnight last night and couldn’t turn it off, I was so caught up in it’s mystic spell of storytelling, just like the caliph who can’t bring himself to kill Scherezade because he wants to hear how her story turns out.
It took a lot of courage for Pasolini to travel to these exotic locals (Yemen, Ethiopia, etc.) for one he was homosexual and in some of these places at that time that was punishable by death. He got the creme de la creme of Italian film artisans to work on the film, costumes-Danilo Donati, Set Design- Dante Ferretti, Editing- Nino Baragli, Music Ennio Morricone, Camera-Giuseppe Ruzzolini.
Pasolini and his intrepid crew penetrated hermetic societies, filming in locations that had never been seen by Western audiences, these places are like something out of a dream, it imbues the film with a sense of poetry and magic, bringing the intertwined tales of the Arabian Nights to life in a primal, savage, beautiful way. It is interesting to compare it with Korda’s Thief Of Bagdad,they both spring from the same source and have similar scenes, the prince transformed to an animal, discovering a princess in her garden, taking on a beggar’s clothing, but Arabian Nights tells the tales in a more authentic way, truer to the original. Pasolini was fascinated with the early roots of the novel, picaresque tales of travelers, collections of anecdotes that gave rise to the novels form. The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales come to mind, storytelling at it’s most basic interpreted by a 20th Century poet. A beautiful work of Art by a great artist. Check it out.
I went, I watched, I walked with I Walked With A Zombie. It was incredible! Really the best way to see this film is in a big theater with 35mm projection! There is no substitute, you pick up so many more nuances, the atmosphere becomes all pervasive, your psyche is opened up to the incredible images and fantasy pours in through your eyes and ears to your very soul! This is how the makers designed the film to work, they didn’t think about TV or video. To say the least it was a moving experience and it clocked in at a rocket fast 70 minutes!
This film is crammed with ideas, Lewton and his team did exhaustive research and it shows, the music, the dancing, the Afro Caribbean culture give Zombie a rock hard foundation on which to build a castle of fantasy and terror. But terror in a Fairy Tale like way, sort of innocent yet savage, ruthless as Nature and as pure. This film is a textbook of studio filmmaking at a peak of artistry. The B&W photography,the lighting, the production design, the process photography, amazingly executed.
The Great RKO Artisans of Storytelling-P.S. Check out the legal disclaimer at the bottom of the frame for a joke.
We start in Canada, in a Victorian office, snow falls furiously outside the window. Our Heroine (Francis Dee) is ta nurse being offered a job in the Caribbean, one stock shot of a big sailing schooner later we’re on board (thanks to process photography) with the boss of the plantation and his men, who sing a strange island song in the background. The scene here between Francis Dee and Tom Conway is a brilliantly written piece, it expertly sets the mood for the rest of the film. “It’s so beautiful” Dee thinks to herself only to be interrupted a second later by Conway telling her “It isn’t beautiful” Dee answers “You read my mind” , Conway replies, “You see those flying fish, they’re jumping in terror to escape being eaten, that phosphorescence in the water? The putrescent bodies of dead organisms, This is a place of death.” He sets a tone of unease, he unsettles Dee by reading her mind(supernatural), he belittles her naivety, he fascinates her with his honesty. That sets up their complicated relationship for the rest of the film. All in a couple of minutes.
Then theirs a scene in the town of San Sebastian, probably the RKO backlot dressed up by D’Agostino and Keller. They filmed here maybe a day or two at most, it’s used a couple of times in the film but sparingly, you really get the impression that everything was planned out and organized with maximum efficiency, the budget was $134,000! A scene in a buggy (process) as an old black islander drives Dee to the plantation is also illuminating. The driver tells her how the slaves were brought to the island in chains on a ship, the figurehead of which is now prominently displayed at the plantation. “It’s so beautiful here” “He replies “If you say so miss, if you say so” She naively ignores the whole slavery aspect, the inherent inhumanity, brutality, focusing on the lush scenery. Lewton’s comment on Western insensitivity.
Figurehead of St. Sebastian, a representation of the slave based history of the island
The story continues and some of the high points are, the first night at the plantation, Dee is awakened by a woman crying, she goes out to investigate and enters the Tower where the wife of Ellison is kept. It’s pretty creepy, the tower set is particularly effective consisting of a stone stairway slashing across a black frame. Dee climbs the stairs and is confronted by the wraithlike zombie wife of Conway, Jessica Holland. The zombie advances upon her and I swear they applied a skull like make up to her face, it’s shot in a long shot so you can’t see her too clearly but I want to watch it again and check.
The next great set piece and my favorite scene of the film is when Dee brings Mrs. Holland to a Voodoo ritual, she leads the entranced blonde through a swamp, all artfully created on soundstages, the native drums beat ominously, they come across several talismans , a cow skull, a hanging goat, a human skull and finally a huge zombie guard, he reminds me of Gort from Day The Earth Stood Still.
But due to their protective amulets , pinned to them by the maid at the plantation, they pass unmolested. The ceremony is great, excellent music by real voodoo drummers and authentic dancing that must have blown peoples minds back in 1943. Here’s another aspect of this film that added to it’s tabu appeal, the underlying hint of interracial sex, the way the maid wakes Dee up by tickling her foot, the fascination of the voodoo priests for the tall beautiful white zombie. The confession by Conway’s mother that she participated in zombie rituals and was possessed by a voodoo god! This is 1943! Lewton so skillfully implies all this and gets away with it! Genius! Also he employed a lot of black actors, including Sir Lancelot, the calypso singer who Lewton also used in Curse Of The Cat People and Theresa Harris who is wonderful as the maid Alma. She is funny and sexy and appears in Out Of The Past and many other classic films.
The beautiful Theresa Harris-she is the crying woman that awakened Francis Dee on her first night on the Island. She was crying because her sister had a baby. The Islanders cry at a birth and rejoice at a death. The only freedom from their slavery.
There’s a transitional device used in this film that’s very subtle. I first noticed this technique in Cat People which was edited by the same person, Mark Robson. It’s a sort of a wipe, but it’s as if a black shape passed in front of the lens, in Cat People it feels like a black panther crossed very close to the camera, it creates a subconscious sense of unease, you’re not really aware of what happened, it seems like a quick fade out fade in but it isn’t. Watch Cat People and Zombie carefully and try to catch it. In Zombie it occurs late in the film, a transition between Dee talking to Conway at night at the plantation and Mrs. Holland trying to leave. Somewhere around there. A very subtle masterful stroke that I’ve never heard anyone speak of. The end of the film is a brilliant study in visual poetry, economy of storytelling, and the power of an ending. The drunk half brother kills Mrs. Holland with an arrow from the figurehead in the garden, just as the voodoo priest pierces the doll of Mrs. Holland with a pin.
The half brother(James Ellison) carries Mrs. Hollands body away pursued by the giant zombie guardian. He walks into the ocean to escape the zombie only to be swallowed up by pounding waves.
Dissolve to native fisherman spearfishing in the shallows ( a tank on a sound stage artfully lit and decorated) as they fish and sing they discover Mrs. Holland’s body,
dissolve to them carrying her in a funeral procession back to the plantation where Dee and Conway wait. The END! No dialog explaining what happened, no happy ending with Dee and Holland rushing off to get married, we don’t know what they’re going to do, it’s ambiguous and it’s great! As a matter of fact there is no dialog at all in the last 10 minutes of the film! Pure visual poetry accompanied by music! Try that today. All I can say is thank you LACMA for showing this film in a theater, with 35mm projection! And every film lover out there should see it this way, it’s a blessing!
Sally Menke, at my wine harvest party, 9/19/2010
I can’t believe I’m writing about the sudden passing of a dear friend, Sally Menke. I’ve known Sally and her husband Dean Parisot for a long time, over 23 years. I met them in NYC , I worked with Dean on The Appointments Of Dennis Jennings. We were all very close , I played guitar for Sally’s baby girl Isabella. Sally came out to Hollywood shortly after me. She cut Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Then she met Quentin Tarantino and edited Reservoir Dogs for him. He liked her so much that she cut all his subsequent films. Four Rooms, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Death Proof, and Inglorious Basterds. Between Tarantino jobs she edited Heaven And Earth for Oliver Stone, All The Pretty Horses and Mullholland Falls. She was nominated for an Oscar for Inglorious Basterds and Pulp Fiction. She should have won. Sally brought me onboard on Kill Bill and I worked with her on all the Tarantino films after that. I can never thank her enough for her generosity, friendship and love. I saw her about a week ago at a grape harvest, pizza party at my house and she looked great, seemed to be in a great place, relaxed, really cool. Peace Be With You Sally, we all miss you and love you.
Quentin loved Sally so much, he always had his actors say hello to her.
I recently re-watched Curse Of The Cat People, Val Lewton’s masterpiece. Running an extremely efficient 70 minutes, it’s incredible how much story, atmosphere, character, and artistry the filmmakers have packed into this B thriller. The brilliant script by DeWitt Bodeen picks up the characters from 1942’s Cat People 7 years or so later and now living in Tarrytown, NY, nearby to where Lewton grew up. This setting enables Lewton to inject local lore from his own childhood, notably the legend of the Headless Horseman Of Sleepy Hollow. Lewton was primarily a writer and even though he gets no screen credit as such, this script was a collaboration between Bodeen and him. Robert Wise, crack editor of such RKO gems as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Devil And Daniel Webster was called in to replace the original director Gunther Von Fritsch, who had fallen behind schedule, Wise began his directing career with a bang. Cinematography was by the terrific Nicolas Musuraca, lensman of the incomparably shot noir Out Of The Past. Art Direction by the prodigiously talented Albert S. D’Agostino ( perhaps a distant relation of mine) and Walter Keller. Top it off with excellent performances most notably that of the wonderful child actress Ann Carter. Curse Of The Cat People is an incredibly sensitive film, dealing with the fantasies of a lonely, mis-understood child. Amy Reed creates a “friend” that cares for her and plays with her, partly because her father refuses to believe her stories. Oliver Reed (played by Kent Smith) was married to Irena (Simone Simone) in the original Cat People. He’s afraid his daughters’ flights of fancy will lead her to a similar end as Irena. His loss of the woman he loved has made him afraid for his daughter and really for himself, he does not want to go through the loss of a loved one again, as a result he clamps down on his daughter, seeking to snuff out her “dangerous” imagination. He only succeeds in driving her into the arms of her friend Irena. Amy had discovered a picture of Irena and her mother’s guilty response triggered an unconscious identification with the beautiful, mysterious figure in the photo.
Winter comes and it gives Musuraca and D’Agostino a chance to really shine. Irena gives her Xmas present to Amy, transforming the garden behind the family home to a glittering cathedral of shimmering lights, fantastic winter forms of ice, snow, the bare limbs of trees, a magical application of Movie Studio Artifice, effects done in camera with lighting changes, some of the most beautiful examples of this lost Art ever created.
Another noteworthy sequence is when Irena appears in Amy’s bedroom, telling her little friend she must go, never to be seen again. This is accomplished with a tracking shot, Irena is there and then she is obscured by the camera tracking behind a chair,when the camera emerges Irena is gone, the open window letting some mist cascade in where she once stood, also pay careful attention to the sound track lest you miss the whispered “Goodbye” a beautifully mixed sequence. A group of carolers comes by the house and the shots of the family framed in the front door of their home listening are superb.
Sir Lancelot appears as the faithful man-servant and he is as always great. Lewton used him several times in his films and he always played a character of great dignity, a tribute to Lewton’s egalitarianism. Lewton was hired at RKO ( my favorite studio) to run their “B” horror unit. The movies had to be short ( these were the days of the double bill), produced for under$150,000, and based on a title the studio brass came up with. Lewton disliked this title and the marketing of the film was off base suggesting a straight horror revisit to the original Cat People but I think the title is good, the curse is what happens to the traumatized survivors of the first film, mainly Oliver and Alice Reed. Cat People was a huge hit, saving RKO from the brink of ruin so the studio left Lewton alone and he was able to create some wonderful fantasies on a shoestring budget, a real tribute to the talents involved. Culminating in his masterpiece Curse Of The Cat People, a very personal film.
This brings me to Part Two of this essay, something that struck me while recently viewing this film. Does it contain the root of a character from Mario Bava’s masterpiece Operazione Paura (Kill Baby Kill) .Curse Of The Cat People was made in 1944, as soon as WWII was over the USA flooded Europe with films. They had been prevented from distributing films in Europe during the war. I’m sure Mario Bava went to see this film in Rome and it made a deep impression on him. Bava’s father was a special effects artisan, a sculptor who made creatures for films. Bava was an effects cameraman, master of the in camera effect, matte painting, trick lighting etc. He had to have seen this masterpiece of studio artistry and been deeply moved. The story goes that when he was casting Operazione Paura he searched high and low for a young girl to play the part of the ghostly killer. He couldn’t find one, finally he got a young boy to don a wig and play the part. I think he was looking for his own Ann Carter. A child that resembled her. There are some similar images in the films, for example when the girls are seen in Close Up looking through a window pane.
Another paralell, a child’s ball provides the key to another dimension in both films, in Curse Irena is first revealed tossing Anne’s ball back to her, the little girl throws the ball offscreen to her friend and Simone enters with it and throws it back. In Paura the bouncing ball of the devil girl is often the first sign of her coming.
Bava’s film is an illusion inside of an illusion, a puzzle at the heart of which is a subversion of innocence to evil, a baroque fantasy about the loss of childhood innocence. Perhaps not so far fetched considering the realities of a war torn country. One thing that always struck me about Curse Of The Cat People is the hominess, domestic peace of it’s setting. You want to live there in Tarrytown amongst the legends, old bridges, fireplaces, gardens. Life seems so peaceful, serene. Maybe Operation Paura is a reaction to that idyllic vision from an artist that lived through real horror. Another interesting fact, the girl who falls to her death, impaled on a wrought iron fence at the begining of Operazione Paura is named Irena.
Damn, I wish I could go see this film tonight but I’m working! Duke Mitchell’s lost film,Gone With The Pope,finally finished by Bob Murawski will unspool at the super cool New Beverly Cinema tonight July 13th at 7:30 pm. The story goes that Murawski tracked down Duke’s son and was given 10 boxes of film, some notes and a VHS copy. He began working on it in his spare time and now it’s ready. Hats off to Bob for dedication and perseverence and honoring the work of a deceased filmmaker. A Great Accomplishment! Duke Mitchell had an act in the 50’s with Sammy Petrillo, they were like Dean Martin,& Jerry Lewis clones, they made one film Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla before a lawsuit put an end to their act. So thanks to Murawski and his partner Sage Stallone for resuscitating this lost gem and their Grindhouse Releasing for getting it out.